Author Q&A:
Marc Hamer 

Seed to Dust
(Harvil Secker)

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Encompassing memoir, gardening lore, natural history and philosophy, Seed to Dust follows a year in the life of a gardener of 12 acres of private gardens owned by a lone elderly woman who rarely ventures into them. Marc Hamer was born in the north, studied art in Manchester, and spent a period of time homeless.

Tell us about the writing process of Seed to Dust. Did you know it was a book, or was it made from diaries kept over the course of a year? 
I wrote much of Seed to Dust from notes collected while I worked in the garden. It follows on from my previous book How to Catch a Mole that talks about living a solitary life and a search for freedom and understanding of why we are here. Seed to Dust tells the story of a year in the garden and the gardener’s platonic relationship with the old lady who owns the garden.

What are the parallels between writing and gardening?
A book is a living thing – while I am writing it is alive and is constantly in a process of change and growth. I write in the same way that I garden. I work in layers, there is a landscape, an idea, and I plant something in response to what I can see, a tree, some daffodils, some words. From there it is a long process of building, creating exciting contrasts and soothing harmonies, removing things that do not work and using them to fertilise what comes next, adding highlights and shadows, highs and lows. I am driven to make the world more beautiful, I aim for lasting value. Any garden is only a framework for the next gardener that comes along. A book is a framework for a reader, to interpret personally in a private relationship. The book will belong to the reader’s own life as a few books I have read belong to my life story.

How would you describe your relationship with the owner of the garden you cultivated, Miss Cashmere? 
She was the owner and I was an employee, she was very middle class and I am obviously working class. We all know that the line between them is impermeable yet we spent harmonious years together. We respected each other’s situation, living our separate lives, me designing and nurturing her garden, and her enjoying the ownership and the beauty of that garden. For her it was a place of leisure, for me it was a place of labour, for both of us it was a place of calm tranquility. She saw me as an aspect of the garden, “the gardener”, I saw her also as an aspect of the garden – she was a flower in my garden.

Is it disheartening to cultivate a private garden that is not your own, or that won’t be enjoyed by many people? 
I loved the garden, there was a dialogue between me and the space and the living things around me. I would spend days without seeing another human and I knew each tree, every flower, I pruned every rose by hand, handled every stem. My days were a deep meditation. The garden was not for people to see or not see, people didn’t matter to me, the owner didn’t matter to me. Like the flowers we are here temporarily and ownership has no meaning. I would see a poppy bloom and know that no other human being would ever see that particular flower. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that the flower bloomed and the insects thrived and the birds and hedgehogs, toads and foxes lived their lives in and around the garden just as I did.

You write that men in the “Old North” like yourself were raised to fight, graft and watch sports, and your interests in nature and literature made you different. Do you think that toxic masculinity is really consigned to the past or do men still need to be encouraged to appreciate aspects of life traditionally regarded as feminine?
I find that hard to answer. I don’t have men friends. I’m not interested in cars or sport or competing with other men. These things are suppressed violence. I am peaceful. I don’t have a television so I don’t really know what people’s attitudes are. I prefer being an outsider. I’m built like somebody who used a spade for many years so I can stand out and men have sometimes wanted to fight me, take me down. I think that need for power is driven by capitalism, greed and the fear of being outcast from the safety of the tribe. The kinds of masculinity I wrote about came out of the historical need for men to work together to survive in a toxic industrial environment. There are many kinds of masculinity that we do not see in a media that thrives on excitement. Male characters with “soft strength” take real skill to write, to perform. Girls have role models who show them what women are capable of, boys have few heroes and they are not very diverse. They rarely speak softly, they are often sentimental without showing sensitivity. Boys rarely see movies about the heroism it takes to come out as gay in a mining town, or the deep emotional strength of a chubby male nurse who sits beside the old man, holds his hand and makes him laugh as he dies. The man who is overweight, the man in a wheelchair, the old man with a stick, even the peaceful man who does not get angry are seen as emasculated. Entertainment for boys on TV screens, in sport stadiums, in the privacy of bedrooms on game machines, is watching young, white caricatures of men with engineered body shapes beating each other for fun. But men can be anything, we don’t need to be aggressive and we don’t need to fight the men who are, we can walk away and leave them in the past where they belong.

Tell us about your experiences of homelessness. Did it influence your relationship with the natural world? 
I was 16 years old, an apprentice in a steelworks and was made homeless. My pay was not enough for me to rent anywhere, I spent some time sleeping on friends’ sofas but it was not sustainable. I slept in derelict buildings for a while and in the park but eventually I started walking. I decided to be a “gentleman of the road”, I had no choice, so I embraced it. I was determined to avoid the city. I walked for nearly two years, sleeping in the countryside, under hedges, canal bridges, in the woods. I grew comfortable with nature, I learned that the natural world and myself were not two different things, we were the same. I learned to respect nature and I came to love it. I very nearly starved to death a couple of times like a bird in the winter, it seemed natural and I lost my fear of dying.

Do you have a favourite time of year in the garden, and if so why?
My favourite time in the garden and in the wild is the autumn. This is a time when the whole cycle of life is there to be seen, there are flowers, dried seed heads, rotting leaves, insects and larvae, dead plants and new growth appearing. That cycle of life and death is the most beautiful thing to me, it is perfect.

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